Thanks to glass instrument panels, Woods thinks the older airframers will remain competitive. “Our airframe is a mature, seasoned airframe,” he says, slipping into his sales pitch. “But basic aerodynamics have not changed. Compared to the new airplanes today, our product is more efficient, goes faster and higher on less fuel, and further.”
The tension between old and new manufacturers comes to a head each April at the annual Sun ’n Fun airshow in Lakeland, Florida. Spring is the start of the light aircraft flying season, and while thousands of “tire kickers” attend the Experimental Aircraft Association’s larger July airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, proportionately more pilots come to buy at the smaller Sun ’n Fun. And the manufacturers know it. Cirrus deploys an army of salesmen and five aircraft dedicated to giving demonstration rides at Sun ’n Fun, and Cessna has built a permanent pavilion at the Lakeland site. Other manufacturers, including Columbia, set up shop at the airport in nearby Plant City: A smaller volume of air traffic there during the week of Sun ’n Fun means more opportunities to take prospective buyers on demo flights.
Depending on the size of their territories, most salesmen attend 20 to 30 airshows and fly-ins a year. Another way to find buyers is to maintain contacts with flight schools, and a third great source of leads is the base of customers whom you’ve already sold to. However salesmen hook up with potential buyers, it still comes down to “butts in the seat”: The more people you fly, the more airplanes you sell.
On a Saturday morning last April, Columbia salesman Duncan Jones showed off a $579,000 top-of-the-line Model 400 to a particularly hot prospect, Tim Baker, an anesthesiologist from Lafayette, Louisiana. Baker has been flying for 28 years and has owned several aircraft. He currently flies a Cessna 182. If the Columbia flightline at Plant City were a Las Vegas casino, Baker would be considered a “whale,” a high-roller.
Baker and Jones hopped into the cockpit of the slick, 270-mph, low-wing rocket, fired up the engine, and started scrolling through the computerized pre-launch checklist that popped onto the multi-function display of the Garmin G1000 glass panel system.
“I like this,” said Baker. “I own Garmin stuff.”
Jones could not contain himself, saying, “Well, you need to order one-—now.” Baker ignored the entreaty and asked a question about the display system. Less than five minutes later, he snapped the Model 400 off the runway and settled into a brisk climb of 1,600 feet per minute. Before they had leveled off at 7,300 feet, Jones had already enumerated the features and benefits of the aircraft’s flight control system, which the aerobatically trained Baker put to the test. He pitched the nose up 30 degrees, then threw the airplane into a hard left turn. As Baker continued to yank and bank, a slight smile formed on his lips. Jones talked Baker through a stall and popped the speed brakes, whereupon the airplane entered a steep descent: 4,500 feet per minute.
Toward the end of the 45-minute flight, Baker mentioned a few things he didn’t like about the Model 400, but Jones was relentless. “So do you know what color you want?” he asked. “I’m color-blind,” Baker shot back.
Eight months after his demo ride, Baker has not decided if he wants the airplane, which is not atypical. Only around 10 percent of all demo rides lead to a purchase.
There are times when a salesman knows there is no hope of a sale, but he flies someone anyway. Many years ago, a man came to an airport where Bruce Keller was giving demo rides. He had never seen a new airplane and had never been up in an airplane at all. “You could tell this fellow was having a tough time with life,” says Keller. “He had on striped pants and a plaid shirt. We talked a bit, then I put him in the right seat and we went flying. He told me he couldn’t buy an airplane, and I told him I wasn’t asking him to. To this day, I still get a Christmas card from that fellow. It meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to me.”